In Syria Chemical Probe, Can U.N. Investigators Avoid Saying Who Hit Who?

In this Friday, Sept 7, 2012 file photo, a Free Syrian Army fighter runs after attacking a tank with a rocket-propelled grenade during fighting in the Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria. More than two years into Syria's civil war, the once highly-centralized authoritarian state has effectively split into three distinct parts, each boasting its own flags, security agencies and judicial system.
National Journal
Cameron Smith, Special To Global Security Newswire
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Cameron Smith, Special to Global Security Newswire
Aug. 9, 2013, 11:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — A United Na­tions in­spec­tion mis­sion to Syr­ia that could be­gin with­in the next week will seek to de­term­ine if chem­ic­al weapon at­tacks have taken place in the na­tion’s two-year con­flict, but re­portedly will stop short of as­sess­ing which side was to blame.

How real­ist­ic is that?

Des­pite in­tense in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure to as­sign re­spons­ib­il­ity for an es­tim­ated 100-plus deaths due to chem­ic­al at­tacks, the stated goal of the mis­sion steers clear of that in­ter­na­tion­al light­ning rod. Some is­sue ex­perts are say­ing this lim­it­a­tion on scope takes the teeth out of any U.N. find­ings that might be made.

Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies have al­leged that Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar As­sad has crossed a “red line“ in un­leash­ing chem­ic­al strikes, while Rus­sia has countered that it sus­pects op­pos­i­tion fight­ers of do­ing the same. The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment and rebel forces each deny they are to blame, in­stead point­ing fin­gers at the oth­er.

Lim­its on the scope of the up­com­ing on-the-ground in­vest­ig­a­tion have come amid these dif­fer­ences between power­ful U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil per­man­ent mem­bers and As­sad’s re­fus­al to give in­spect­ors free rein.

Un­der U.N. guidelines about al­leged chem­ic­al weapons use, the sec­ret­ary-gen­er­al has the lat­it­ude to de­term­ine how an in­vest­ig­a­tion will be con­duc­ted. The guidelines also state that a U.N. mem­ber state should re­ceive an in­spec­tion team “without pre­ju­dice to al­low for timely and ef­fi­cient in­vest­ig­a­tions.”

However, the pro­cess of ne­go­ti­at­ing with Syr­ia has made put­ting in­vest­ig­at­ors on the ground much harder for U.N. Sec­ret­ary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon.

As­sad “thinks that he is go­ing to win” the two-year-old civil war and is “try­ing to re­hab­il­it­ate his im­age,” something that would be “very dif­fi­cult to do” if he is linked to chem­ic­al weapons at­tacks against Syr­i­an ci­vil­ians, said Theodore Kat­touf, a former U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Syr­ia.

Dam­as­cus to date has said it would al­low in­vest­ig­at­ors ac­cess to the sites of just three al­leged chem­ic­al at­tacks — as­saults that Bashar As­sad’s re­gime has at­trib­uted to op­pos­i­tion forces. Those are the town of Khan al-As­sal, where an al­leged sar­in gas at­tack on March 19 killed at least 26 people, and two loc­a­tions that dip­lo­mats told Agence France-Presse were in Homs, fol­low­ing a pos­sible Dec. 23 chem­ic­al in­cid­ent, and near Dam­as­cus, al­legedly struck in March.

By con­trast, anti-gov­ern­ment mil­it­ants have agreed to fully co­oper­ate with the in­vest­ig­a­tions and have said the 10-mem­ber U.N. team, to be led by Swedish sci­ent­ist Ake Sell­strom, may ex­er­cise full ac­cess to sites in rebel-held ter­rit­ory. In par­tic­u­lar, the Syr­i­an op­pos­i­tion has urged the United Na­tions to in­spect an ad­di­tion­al site in the town of Adra, where rebels as­sert that As­sad used tox­ic chem­ic­als on ci­vil­ians.

It is un­clear wheth­er the op­pos­i­tion pledge of open ac­cess will make a dif­fer­ence on the ground.

“If the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment has only ap­proved three sites, that’s all in­spect­ors are go­ing to see,” Kat­touf said, based on his un­der­stand­ing of the situ­ation. That would make it highly un­likely that in­vest­ig­at­ors could veri­fy chem­ic­al weapons use at any of the sites that rebels are ur­ging them to check.

What’s more, the pas­sage of time since the three at­tacks are al­leged to have tran­spired could have erased most or all of the evid­ence — and make any evid­ence that re­mains some­what sus­pect, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

One of the best ways to at­trib­ute a chem­ic­al at­tack to one side or an­oth­er is by identi­fy­ing the proven­ance of the de­liv­ery sys­tem, said Amy Smith­son, a chem­ic­al weapons non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ex­pert at the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies.

However, be­cause so much time has passed and much of the coun­try re­mains a war zone, “that type of evid­ence may not be at the in­cid­ent sites any more,” she said.

The in­teg­rity of the as­sault loc­a­tions to be in­vest­ig­ated is a ma­jor ques­tion mark, as well. “The like­li­hood that these sites re­main un­dis­turbed in the midst of a civil war is very low,” Smith­son said.

For any phys­ic­al evid­ence on the ground or med­ic­al samples that are ob­tained, in­vest­ig­at­ors “are not likely to be able to con­firm the chain of cus­tody,” thus “ren­der­ing that evid­ence ques­tion­able,” Smith­son said.

To some, the mis­sion will be for naught if chem­ic­al weapon use is dis­covered but neither side is cited as hav­ing ori­gin­ated the at­tack.

A U.N. in­spec­tion mis­sion that rules out a search for at­tri­bu­tion “makes it mean­ing­less,” as­ser­ted An­drew Ta­bler, a seni­or fel­low at the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Policy and a former journ­al­ist in Dam­as­cus.

In past con­flicts, it has some­times been pos­sible to cred­ibly pin al­leged chem­ic­al weapon use on one side or an­oth­er, Smith­son said.

One in­stance was a 1988 re­port con­clud­ing that both Ir­aq and Ir­an had used chem­ic­al weapons in the nearly eight-year Ir­an-Ir­aq war. That WMD con­flag­ra­tion promp­ted the U.N. Se­cur­ity Coun­cil to ad­opt Res­ol­u­tion 620, which states the body’s dis­may that there had been re­peated, and in­creas­ingly in­tense, chem­ic­al weapons use in the con­flict, par­tic­u­larly by Ir­aqi forces. Ir­an’s chem­ic­al weapons pro­gram was be­gun as a re­sponse to the use of chem­ic­al agents by Ir­aqi forces dur­ing that war.

In­ter­na­tion­al in­quir­ies do not al­ways res­ult in con­firmed at­tacks though. Past in­vest­ig­a­tions at times have de­term­ined that “al­leg­a­tions have no mer­it,” ac­cord­ing to Smith­son. For ex­ample, she said, “a 1992 in­vest­ig­a­tion of a sup­posed chem­ic­al at­tack by the Mozambic­an Na­tion­al Res­ist­ance found no evid­ence to sub­stan­ti­ate the charge.”

The United Na­tions on Tues­day an­nounced that fi­nal pre­par­a­tions were be­ing made for the Syr­ia in­spec­tion op­er­a­tion.

Ban re­leased a state­ment through his press of­fice say­ing that trip de­tails would be fi­nal­ized “with­in the next days.” Sell­strom’s team of chem­ic­al and health ex­perts has re­portedly con­vened at The Hag­ue, Neth­er­lands, and is pre­par­ing to de­part for Syr­ia.

Ta­bler said the lim­ited ac­cess ap­par­ently af­forded to the in­spect­ors would not be enough to con­clude any­thing sig­ni­fic­ant.

“If you’re gonna get in­to it, it’s bet­ter to be com­pre­hens­ive,” he said. The United Na­tions and its team of in­spect­ors would get some­where with their find­ings only if they “don’t bend and stay true to their prin­ciples and are hard-nosed,” Ta­bler said.

But after a long or­deal to gain Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment con­sent for al­low­ing the chem­ic­al weapons in­vest­ig­at­ors in­to the coun­try, lob­by­ing for ac­cess to more loc­a­tions may not be wise, ac­cord­ing to some ex­perts.

“The U.N. might push to in­vest­ig­ate more sites, but that would prob­ably mean ad­di­tion­al delay, which would be det­ri­ment­al to the in­vest­ig­a­tion of the three ar­ranged sites,” Smith­son said.

The lengthy U.N.-Syr­ia ne­go­ti­ations may also have been part of a ploy by As­sad to cre­ate the sense that “any kind of nor­mal in­vest­ig­a­tion is a vic­tory,” Ta­bler said.

The Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment could be hop­ing the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity will be con­tent to have achieved even lim­ited ac­cess on the ground, and thus less likely to press for ac­cess to ad­di­tion­al sites that might im­plic­ate the gov­ern­ment in the use of chem­ic­al agents, he said.

Still, there is a re­mote pos­sib­il­ity that chem­ic­al evid­ence will point back to spe­cif­ic labor­at­or­ies in which leth­al com­pounds were man­u­fac­tured, even if it re­mains un­clear which side in the con­flict un­leashed them.

“There may be hall­marks of a Syr­i­an syn­thes­is pro­gram” in trace amounts of chem­ic­als that the in­spec­tion team could find at in­spec­tion sites, said Smith­son.

The po­ten­tial abil­ity to de­term­ine the ori­gin of a chem­ic­al weapon at­tack through trace amounts of agents left after an at­tack could po­ten­tially ex­plain As­sad’s de­sire to main­tain con­trol over key as­pects of the trip, ac­cord­ing to Kat­touf.

“When it comes to mat­ters such as this, de­cep­tion is al­most a way of life for this re­gime,” he told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire. “They have a his­tory of ob­fus­cat­ing. Get­ting to the truth is much harder to do.”

That said, the mere ex­ist­ence of al­leg­a­tions against As­sad and his gov­ern­ment doesn’t mean that the re­gime is “guilty of charges,” Kat­touf ac­know­ledged.

Smith­son agreed that while Syr­i­an re­gime chem­ic­al weapons use has been al­leged by Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies, oth­er scen­ari­os ex­ist in which ex­pos­ure to these deadly agents also might have oc­curred. Pos­sib­il­it­ies in­clude, ac­cord­ing to Smith­son:

— “Syr­i­an forces may have used a chem­ic­al war­fare agent or oth­er tox­ic chem­ic­al to test the wa­ters on es­cal­at­ing the con­flict without an in­ter­na­tion­al out­cry.

— “The op­pos­i­tion, weary of wait­ing for out­side as­sist­ance and aware that the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity largely be­lieves the Syr­i­an gov­ern­ment to pos­sess chem­ic­al weapons, might have re­leased a tox­ic chem­ic­al to push oth­er coun­tries to enter the fray. 

— “A con­ven­tion­al bomb might have triggered a re­lease of chem­ic­als from a loc­al fa­cil­ity.  [While] not a de­lib­er­ate event, [this is] something that has happened fre­quently in past con­flicts, such as in Yugoslavia,” Smith­son said.

The num­ber of vari­ables that could con­found at­tri­bu­tion of any chem­ic­al-strike evid­ence is im­mense, she and oth­er ex­perts un­der­scored. However, some small chance re­mains that clues to culp­ab­il­ity will emerge from the U.N.-sponsored trip, des­pite lim­it­a­tions on the scope of in­spec­tions, ex­perts said.

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